Steve Milan talks about the single thing he hears most often as a therapist.
“For a man, I think helplessness is the most terrifying thing we can feel.” I have said this as I sit with many of my male clients – and to many of their partners in couples therapy. We are so scared of helplessness that we will hurt ourselves and others to make it go away. We’ll do just for the sake of doing so we don’t feel helpless. We’ll pursue any addiction (sex, alcohol, work, video games, writing) so we don’t feel weakness. We’ll choose anger and aggression so we can feel the illusion of power in the face of our powerlessness. We’ll plan, control, create organizations, make wads of money so we can claim success. We will find a problem, any problem, to solve just so we don’t have to sit with our own stories of inadequacy.
We’ll show up in couples therapy defending our right to solve our partner’s problems rather than sit with her… and listen… and be with her as she vents. Being with her is tough – and frustrating. We’re not good at it. And it doesn’t make the thing that’s hurting her go away. So we have to sit in the shit of our own powerlessness if we try to do what she asks and just listen to her. Screw that! I just want to solve the damn problem!
And yet, she wants us to just be with her – and somehow she says it helps. It may help her – and we see that it may be better for the relationship on the rare occasion when we are able to just sit and not solve. But it feels terrible to have no tools – no way to make it better and no way to sit with the discomfort. We look at her helplessness in the situation and want to distance ourselves from it.
Despite all of our efforts to deny it, helplessness is so much part of our humanness. If we are not strong enough to sit in it, we cannot handle even the small frustrations of life – traffic, minor illnesses or injuries, a dropped ball, a lost game. And we definitely can’t deal with the fact that our kids will grow up and leave, that their hearts or our hearts will be broken, that people we love will grow old and die, that we too will die. A client once told me that letting one of his patients die was “the ultimate failure”. He wasn’t ready yet to acknowledge the limits of his control and his ultimate helplessness over death.
And, as I see with so many therapy lessons that I believe and espouse, I am hardly more able than he is to accept the limits of my humanness. My own helplessness these days relates to my son’s impending move out of state to go to college. “It’s just the way of the world,” I tell myself. “I should be happy for him.” And I am happy for him! But I’m also aware of how much I want to hold onto the boy he was, how something like a lump arises in me when I look at pictures of him as a toddler with curly blonde wisps covering his head. I want him back. And I want my old, functional body back – the one that was able to carry him up to his bed, completely collapsed and trusting in my arms, and kiss his forehead as he sleeps.
I can’t do anything about this. He, or at least his attention and excitement, is already 900 miles away, at the college where I will drop him in 45 days. And I don’t want to diminish his excitement with my loss or my fears for his future. I know that he will eventually feel, and want to reject, his own helplessness. I hope that I have given him enough (of something I can’t even name) to stand in it, and find the freedom on the other side.
I want to fiercely sit in my own helplessness and the terror that comes with it, because I believe that this seat tells me how precious he is to me. And this seat also frees me from the responsibility for his future beyond my role of loving him. And it is from this seat that I can offer something to him, and to so many clients, who daily encounter their own helplessness.
I plan to be with my helplessness and with my son for the next 45 days as much as possible. One day, over eighteen years ago when my son was still in utero, I had the thought that I wanted so much for him, but I didn’t want to be restrictive in any way with my wants as I wasn’t sure what he’d need, so I just decided to want for him unconditionally. I came to think of wanting for as love. When he leaves, I will learn new ways of wanting for. Before he leaves, I will practice a different kind of love, one I am calling being with.
Photo—tausend und eins, fotografik/Flickr